Countering the Idea of Counterwill: A Terrible Theory About the Terrible Twos

No school, no playgrounds, no play dates. Parents sheltering in place with their toddlers are having to do without some of their favorite parenting strategies which can make dealing with the emotional ups and downs of toddlerdom more challenging than usual. Unfortunately, there is some really bad advice out there about handling the greatest challenge of all — the terrible two temper tantrum and having bad advice never does anyone any good.

Here’s a good example of the bad advice I’m talking about. Written by Meghan Leahy, a parenting coach and writer of a column called “On Parenting” at the Washington Post, it presents a terrible explanation of the terrible twos that claims to explain teenage rebellion as well. Leahy was responding to a plea for help from the mother of a four-year-old whose child “does exactly what we ask him not to do.”

Every parent can sympathize with what this mom is going through. Too many of us have come close to despair when we realized that the “terrible twos” is a misnomer – it’s terrible, all right, but the stage only begins at two; tantrums and disobedience can last for years. Help is definitely needed but Leahy’s response was based on a completely backwards understanding of child development because she has failed to grasp the mimetic nature of desire and rivalry.

Even if you aren’t a parent or have young children I do hope you’ll read on because understanding the mimetic dynamics at play in the toddler-parent power struggle illuminates all our relationships.

… plain old human will, the wish or desire to do something or be someone, is a very powerful force, one that drives most, if not all, of human behavior.

How Counterwill Gets it Wrong

Meghan Leahy said that the problem child’s behavior was normal and explained by “counterwill, the deep impulse to resist being bossed around and told what to do and how to think.” She was relying on the work of child development expert Gordon Neufeld. Forgive me for being blunt, but that is absolute baloney. Unfortunately, most parents and apparently a lot of parenting experts can’t sniff out this overly processed sausage, so let’s set the record straight.

There is no such thing as “counterwill”. On the other hand, plain old human will, the wish or desire to do something or be someone is a very powerful force, one that drives most, if not all, of human behavior. A realistic understanding of how will operates in young children is all you need to understand the terrible twos and its adolescent cousin.

Despite protests to the contrary from overwhelmed parents, a 4-year-old is NOT the “epitome of willfulness” as Leahy claims, nor does their “immaturity prohibit [them] from understanding [an adult’s] perspective.” A 4-year-old is more accurately understood as the epitome of imitation.

For evidence of this, think about infants and the quality of adult interactions with them. Everything adults do is based on the unspoken understanding that an infant will spontaneously imitate our vocalizations, gestures and facial expressions. In that way children are formed by their imitation of adults who initiate them into the culture in which they are born.

In other words, they are “willful” but not in the sense Leahy meant as being “opposed to adults”. In childhood, willful means highly motivated to imitate our every action, thought and desire so they can become just like us.

The Olive

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You’re Not the Boss of Me!

Humans don’t stop imitating after infancy. The drive to imitate guides our development as we devote all our energy to maturing into adult members of society.

Children desire nothing more powerfully than to be as competent, independent, and free as the paragons of self-sufficiency who parent, teach, and care for them all day. And sometimes they will insist on having their own way, not out of disobedience but because they are imitating us! They are not opposing us, but learning from us that mature human beings don’t get bossed around – they do the bossing.

Where do you think children learned to declare, “You’re not the boss of me!”? From adults who refuse to bend their will to anyone else’s. Especially their children’s.

American Parents Overvalue Independence

Because Americans value independence and self-sufficiency, we are embarrassed by any suggestion that we are imitators. No one wants to be a follower. We want to be leaders and our children absorb that value from us.

As René Girard brilliantly observed, “Adults are ashamed of our imitation – children absorb this and perhaps defy us in order to prove their independence.” Rebellion and disobedience is a direct result of the overemphasis on independence. How do we know? Because children behave very differently in other cultures that emphasize community and mutual responsibility.

According to an article in Psychology Today, “Contrary to conventional wisdom, the ‘terrible twos’ phenomenon is not universal. In fact, it is far less dramatic—even completely absent—in some cultures.” The article reports on an experiment comparing the parenting styles in Utah with those in Guatemala.

The children were allowed to play with a novel and attractive object like a pencil case or an embroidery hoop. In Utah, toddlers and older siblings typically fought over the object, and mothers usually demanded that the toddler share or take turns with the older sibling. At the end of the observational period, toddlers had the desirable object a bit more than half the time. In Guatemala, however, both mothers and older siblings routinely let the toddler have the object—and older children often asked their younger sibling for permission to play with the object. If the mother got involved, she gave the object to the toddler 97 percent of the time, without insisting on sharing or turn-taking.

The parenting style observed among the mothers in Utah is fairly typical in the West. A toddler is taught that he or she fits into the family structure as one of many individuals and will be held to the same standards as siblings. With its emphasis on individual rights and freedoms, this approach to parenting reflects the more general Western emphasis on autonomy and independence.

Guatemalan mothers, however, expect an older sibling to defer to the toddler for the sake of harmony and good relations. Their parenting style can be understood as a reflection of broader cultural values related to collectivism and interdependence. Indeed, an international study of cultural values supports this contention. Using a 100-point scale, the renowned Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede has assigned an individualism score of 91 to the U.S., whereas Guatemala has a comparatively minuscule score of six. 

The article concludes that, “It is likely that cultural values – as transmitted by well-meaning parents – are partly responsible for the hordes of misbehaving two-year-olds in the United States.” Just as the twos do not have to be terrible, so the teen years do not have to be rebellious.

Kathy Frost, a professor of adolescent psychology who works with mimetic theory, wrote in an email to me, “Anna Freud’s assertion – that adolescents have to go through a ‘storm and stress’ period that’s vital to ‘individuation’ (as if we wouldn’t become our own person if we didn’t experience a serious rebellion) is not supported by research. Current research shows that the teens years are largely not rebellious. There is ‘bickering’ for sure, but most teen-parent relationships are largely loving and supportive.”

Defusing Power Struggles

So what’s a parent to do? The most effective way to avoid tantrums and rebellion is to remember that what looks like disobedience is actually imitation.

Parents tend to focus on our spoken commands, but children are focused on our unspoken desires and they obey them to the letter! The Montessori educational method developed by the Italian physician Dr. Maria Montessori is grounded in the principle of imitation. She developed practices for teachers to be a non-rivalrous presence in the classroom that can easily be adopted by parents at home.

Here are three essential ingredients for defusing power struggles before they even begin:

1. Sharing is optional. In the Montessori classroom, children are taught how to share but are never forced to do so. Why? Because Montessori understood that if children crave an object and don’t want to share, it is not because they are selfish or greedy. It is because they are responding to their inner drive to learn and grow by engaging with the object that has caught their attention. Forcing children to share causes them pain and suffering which they express through tears and “tantrums”, an unfortunate pejorative term for the child’s attempt to communicate their deep need to us.

2. Respect is essential. When we understand that children learn through engagement with the world of objects that they touch, hold, taste, smell, and manipulate we can respect their process as equal to if not superior to adult ways of learning. When we respect the child we can delight in their desire to repeat an action, hear the same story again and again, or insist upon putting on their shoes by themselves even though it delays us to distraction.

3. Replace punishment with love. Punishing children for imitating our desires to be the boss is the height of hypocrisy. And it teaches the opposite of what we want them to learn — to love others for who they are even when it is inconvenient. True Montessori teachers do not punish just as they never coerce sharing. Instead, when children are “disobedient”, teachers recognize that what is needed is love not punishment.

Imitate This!

If we want our children to submit to parental authority – and we do! – then we must not respond to their “disobedience” with wounded pride. Remember that children imitate our actions and our desires because they want to be just like us. In this case it is quite true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

While children are expert imitators, imitation does not disappear as we age. We don’t call it imitation in ourselves because of our obsession with originality. But we do use expressions like “going viral”, “fads”, “trending topics”, “tit for tat” and so on which reveal the patterns of imitation that drive our behavior as surely as it drives that of our children. Of course, we are all too familiar with the way in which rivalry and power struggles, and even temper tantrums, have infected our politics and hampered our ability to respond in a coordinated way to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When we learn as children that the most important marker of adulthood is being the boss and imposing your will on others, we become adults who create self-destructive rivalry on a global scale. As teachers, parents, and nations, we would be well served to follow the example of the Guatemalan mothers who practice respect, generosity, and giving desirable objects to their children. In this way, we can model that generosity is more important than being the boss. Just imagine if generosity went viral – that’s a pandemic we could live with.